Press "Enter" to skip to content

Architect Kengo Kuma looks back in remaking Tokyo’s Nezu Museum

TOKYO (TR) – Boxy concrete apartment buildings have come to symbolize Japan nearly as much as sushi and sumo. Following the end of World War II these garish and drab structures began springing up in large numbers along the outskirts of the nation’s larger cities to meet the surging demand of a growing population.

Yet it’s these uninspiring blocks that have perversely inspired renowned architect Kengo Kuma. Proof of this can be found in his work on the recently reconstructed Nezu Museum in Tokyo. “I wanted to create a huge roof,” Kuma says. “I attempted to connect people and the ground once again with the roof.”

Much like a farmhouse, an arched roof rises up to the height of two floors and extends roughly 50 meters laterally over the length of the museum’s main building, which occupies part of a long block in the swanky Minami Aoyama area of the city and is home to a substantial collection of traditional Japanese and Asian works of art.

“The beautiful shadows created by roofs were destroyed by post-war Japan’s concrete-box architecture,” says Kuma, 55. “Shadows link architecture to the ground and give comfort to the architecture and warmth to the city.”

Nezu Museum
The Nezu Museum is located in the Minami Aoyama area of Tokyo

For the three-and-a-half-year project, completed last October, Kuma, who majored in architecture at the University of Tokyo before studying at Columbia University in New York, blended a minimalist feel with Japanese cultural touches rooted in nature, an approach that has become the architect’s trademark.

His preference for natural aesthetics is also on display at the Suntory Museum of Art at Tokyo Midtown, whose interior exudes warmth through an emphasis on wood and paper, and in his prefabricated houses for retailer Muji. The small domiciles are designed to redirect sunlight through the interior.

Kuma says that he wanted to achieve a similar effect with the new Nezu, despite it being a steel-framed structure. “Although concrete is used in the structure,” he explains, “it doesn’t appear in the parts visible from the outside. The building is supported by solid steel pillars which create an overall scale similar to that of a wood structure.”

Furthering this concept is an exterior that features a long entrance corridor beneath an eave of the roof whose edge is fronted by a line of bamboo and stones. At the museum’s doors, guests enter a vaulted atrium filled with Buddhist sculptures and bounded by large panes of glass that offer a view of the Nezu’s expansive gardens: 1.8 hectares of greenery, pathways, ponds, waterfalls, stone bridges and teahouses.

“I treated the museum as a kind of gate connecting the city and the sacred garden of the museum,” explains Kuma, who likens the bamboo corridor to the kind often found leading to ceremonial tearooms. “I tried to calm down the bustling air of Omotesando, which is one of the liveliest shopping streets in Japan, with the gate. It plays the same role that a torii does for a shrine.”

National treasures

The new 5,000-square-meter museum contains a sampling of the 7,000 paintings, works of calligraphy, scrolls, sculptures, ceramics and bamboo crafts that make up the Nezu’s collection. The six galleries, a substantial increase over the two in the previous incarnation, employ top-of-the-line technologies. Display cases are illuminated with light-emitting diodes to provide a subdued setting. Sound intrusion is reduced through specially constructed cork floorings and ceilings covered in cloth.

The museum intends to rotate pieces from its collection over the course of the first year. Many of the sculptures, such as those occupying the atrium, and other select pieces, however, will remain in place. Among the museum’s holdings are seven national treasures, 87 important cultural properties and 96 important art objects.

Korin Ogata’s “Irises” is one of those national treasures. Dating back to the 18th century, the work depicts a panorama of irises spreading across a pair of gold foil screens. “It is one of my most favorite works of art in Japan,” Kuma says. “As an architect I have been greatly influenced by the technique of showing the depth of space with limited elements, and this is indeed reflected in the approach to the construction of the space at Nezu.”

Kengo Kuma
Kengo Kuma

Such attentiveness would likely have been approved by the Nezu’s founder, Kaichiro Nezu, a former president of Tobu Railway and a tea ceremony enthusiast. His residence was used to display, among other things, his collection of ornate 18th-century Chinese clocks and tea paraphernalia. Following his death in 1940, it was converted into a modest museum. In the 1950s, a conventional gallery was built, and subsequent additions and improvements were completed up through the early part of the last decade. In recent times, however, maintenance of the aging structures became an issue.

“Good qualities of the old days”

Koichi Nezu, the current director and grandson of the founder, oversaw the makeover, which also included a name change (the museum was formerly known as the Nezu Institute of Fine Arts). The Nezu’s new logo is the rendering of the letters “N” and “M” with sections of bamboo, a design by German creative agency Peter Schmidt.

It is no secret that developers in Japan prefer a scrap-and-build cycle, a process that oftentimes places financial reward ahead of history. Kuma says he would like to see a trend develop where the younger generation of architects appreciates the value of the past.

“I believe that the cities of Japan will gradually retrieve good qualities of the old days,” he says, “and I designed the Nezu museum to hopefully further that movement.”

Note: This article originally appeared in the January issue of iNTOUCH, the magazine of the Tokyo American Club.